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Repast is prologue

Over lunch, 'My Dinner With Andre's' Gregory blithely lays it on the table.

March 20, 2005|Jan Breslauer | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — A short, somewhat nebbishy writer in an overcoat trudges through the cold gray streets of Manhattan, en route to a restaurant meal with Andre Gregory. This is the opening of Gregory and Wallace Shawn's 1981 cult-classic film, "My Dinner With Andre," directed by Louis Malle. Nearly 25 years later, the scene reprises itself -- only this time it's me, on my way to play the Wally Shawn role with the titular Andre, longtime icon of American experimental theater.

The reason for My Lunch With Andre is his upcoming residency at REDCAT, Tuesday through Saturday, which will include screenings of "My Dinner With Andre" and "Vanya on 42nd Street" as well as four performances of Gregory's solo work "After Dinner." For our conversation, he's chosen Sant Ambroeus, a bistro in his Greenwich Village neighborhood, where I discover him ensconced in a corner booth, studying a newspaper article about a recent painting exhibition.

Waiting for the photographer, he's quick to muse about coming back to Los Angeles. "I'm actually thrilled about doing something theatrical in L.A., because of course I've made movies in L.A., but making a movie in L.A. is like making a movie anywhere," he says. "And I did get kicked out of L.A. once," he continues, with a Cheshire cat smile, referring to his brief but controversial reign at the helm of the Inner City Cultural Center, in the wake of the Watts riots.

As Gregory gets rolling, I interject a word or two -- not unlike the occasional "Uh-huh" or "Gosh" with which the more introverted Shawn punctuates the voluble Gregory's arias in the early part of "Dinner." And yet Gregory is different from the motor-mouthed version of himself he played on-screen. Wearing a royal-blue sweater that brings out twinkly eyes, he speaks softly and slowly, giving the impression of gentleness and a passionate inquisitiveness undimmed by life's vagaries.

Although his films with Shawn and Malle brought him to a wider public, Gregory first made his mark as a stage director, most notably with his company the Manhattan Project, where he created acclaimed productions of "Endgame," "The Seagull" and "Alice in Wonderland," which ran for seven years, toured internationally and was photographed by Richard Avedon.

And yet unlike many artists of the avant-garde, Gregory's aesthetic isn't tied to a particular visual style but focuses on the most elemental ingredients of drama. "Something Louis Malle and I had in common was that every time he did a new work, it seemed to have no relationship to the work he'd just done," Gregory says. "So often people misunderstood his work, and often people have misunderstood my work. I don't even think of myself as part of any movement or an experimental theater director, although I've been experimenting my whole life."

Of course, with the possible exception of the 1970s, working in experimental theater in the U.S. hasn't ever been easy. But Gregory, 70, is philosophical about his chosen path. "The art of winning at poker is to win with a bad hand," he says. "So if you're not given much to work with, sometimes it leads -- well, with me it's led to minimalist, very simple kind of work that doesn't rely on sets, costumes and lights and is focused really on the depth and ambiguity of the human being."

Love and loss

"After Dinner," the performance Gregory will present at REDCAT, includes a reading of his play "Bone Songs" combined with what he describes as "stories about my past and digressions about the world in which we live." The play is a series of love poems dealing with Gregory's first marriage and the loss of his wife of 33 years.

He began "Bone Songs" in the early '80s but did not return to the piece until after his wife, Chiquita, died in 1991. "I wanted to allow her to say to me the things she'd never had a chance to say because she died young," he says. "Also, you know the Tibetans feel that as long as we hold on to a dear one who's died, they can't continue their journey. So the motivation of the play was also to allow her to move on and to allow me to move on."

To those who know Gregory as an activist, either from the Vietnam days or his current involvement with antiwar groups, his play's themes of love and loss may come as a surprise. But he insists it's not a new concern: "Having the courage to take the risk of loving in spite of all the evidence that you could get harmed, I think it's been an ongoing theme in my work."

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